Develop Cultural Understanding – Get Things Done

Cross-cultural Communication Easily Lends itself to Misunderstanding
It does not take much experience in cross-cultural communication to realize that getting a message across is a much more difficult task when different cultural filters are in place.  In business where communication is so important an understanding of how concepts different cultures frame reality and define their values is imperative.

Business executives wanting to set up a strong Asian presence identified potential partners and initiated a distance conversation to find common ground.  When they felt they had enough information they drew up a contract and flew to Asia to negotiate a final agreement. After presenting their proposal their hosts simply suggested dinner and then drinks followed by karaoke.  The next day followed a similar pattern.  On the third day the Americans left frustrated without an agreement. The entire relationship with their potential partners fell apart.  Why?  The American executives had not taken the time to understand the cultural assumptions of their hosts.  They worked from completely different assumptions about (1) what constituted a good working relationship and (2) what formulated an enforceable agreement.  The most significant variables involved in their failure were not business strategies but cultural ones.

What do I mean by culture?  Culture consists of:

  1. The total way of life of a people;
  2. the social legacy of the person acquires from his group;
  3. a way of thinking, feeling and believing;
  4. an abstraction from behavior;[1]
  5. a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way a group of people in fact behave;
  6. a storehouse of pooled learning;
  7. a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems;
  8. learned behavior;
  9. a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior;
  10. a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men;
  11. a precipitate (impulse) of history.

Inter-cultural studies define culture using one of two fundamental methods either of which could have significantly altered the outcome of the results of the meetings the American executives had with their Asian counter parts.  One method uses a stratigraphc approach that assumes that basic human needs are held in common. A stratigraphic approach attempts to name underlying values and the cultural structures that result.  Another method uses a semiotic approach to understanding culture. In a semiotic approach a person tries to understand cultural differences by identifying the way people describe significance.  Those who promote the semiotic approach often find a stratigraphic approach too mechanical in that it does not always allow for the influence of individuals i.e., personal adaptations to a cultural view.  I describe them both below because they both have strengths that effective leaders use to understand cultural differences.  Both approaches attempt to define the differences in how various cultures see and interpret life.

Stratigraphic Approach

One of my professors, Charles Kraft, uses a stratigraphic approach to understanding cultural differences.  He identified four basic needs and their functions including: biological, psychological, socio-cultural and spiritual. See Table 1.

Kraft contends that analyzing culture consists of understanding the relationship between three different stratigraphic layers.[2]  The most visible part of a culture (the top-level) consists of visible behaviors.  Behavior is the easiest to see however how it is understood by an observer from a different culture easily leads to misinterpreted meaning.  The reason visible behavior is not always understood has to do with the fact that behavior reflects two deeper levels of a cultural system.

Just beneath the visible level is a mid-level aspect of culture consisting of the underlying values that surround how basic needs are understood and met.  The five dimensions of culture identified by Hofstede help explain how the values by which human needs and interactions are defined result in significant differences in how cultures approach those needs.

The deep level of a culture consists of those basic needs and problems faced by all humanity.  The deep level is universal in that needs for food, air, shelter, sex, excretion, meaning in life etcetera are observable in all human societies.  However, the context in which these needs are defined impact the structures different social systems create to understand the significance of these needs and the way they meet them. For example the context of an Inuit family living on the frozen tundra of the north frame these basic needs in an environment that is radically different from a Maori family living on a South Pacific Island.  For this reason I have added a middle or arbitrating layer to Kraft’s table called values.

People in Kraft’s view are more alike than cultures.  In fact Kraft contends that “If we didn’t have a lot in common, the quest to communicate cross-culturally would be worthless.”[3]

Table 1: Universal Needs and Functions in Diverse Cultures

  Biological Psychological Socio-cultural Spiritual


Obtaining and maintaining biological necessities – food, air, shelter, sex, excretion Obtaining and maintaining psychological necessities – meaning in life, personal security, a measure of freedom Obtaining and maintaining socio-cultural  necessities – language, family education, social control Obtaining and maintaining spiritual necessities – beliefs, rituals, mythology

Values provide the lens that assigns meaning and significance to the needs people experience.  In a cultural view values and environment work together to define the way basic needs are met.


Food, air, shelter, sex, excretion Meaning in life, personal security, a measure of freedom Communication provide for the transmission of culture, Maintenance of social system etc. Understanding of and relating to supra-cultural beings and factors, etc.

I accept the contention that people have much in common, however getting at how to understand the differences in how cultures define significance, priority, and relationship is the challenge for people working across cultural divides.  A stratigraphic view of culture is helpful in providing a general reference point for differences – a beginning point to define what is different and how communication must adjust.

Semiotic Approach

Another way to define culture uses a semiotic model. Clifford Geertz champions this method in which the primary thesis is, “…that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”[4]

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and signification. Semiotics is the study of language where one studies a system of symbols agreed on in a given culture to communicate meaning.  Semiotics is a method that those who are bi-lingual and with significant cross-cultural experience have the opportunity to use most effectively.  So, if one is just starting out, semiotics is too complex.  However, do not ignore the principles behind this method of cultural understanding. Once language learning begins the use of semiotics in business provides an advantage in that it moves one closer to comprehending the nuanced meanings often missed by non-Native speakers. Understanding nuance is important when attempted to negotiate contracts, close deals or resolve tensions common to any business relationship.

In the study of semiotics seeks to understand how cultures use symbols (“symbology”). The following linguistic terms explain the concept of comparative symbology in semiotics.  They are important concepts used to help define meaning.

  1. Syntactics:  The formal relationships of signs and symbols to one another apart from their users or external reference. It is the structure or general rules of language that guide users in developing meaning and communicating that meaning.
  2. Semantics:  The relationships of signs and symbols to the things to which they refer. For example: in English the word “rock” may be understoodas mineral mater of variable composition or a mass of stone.  The symbol is assigned to the object.
  3. Pragmatics:  The relations of signs and symbols with their users.[5]  This refers to the way language is used in different contexts.

The first two levels listed above (syntactics and semantics) involve the structural and functional relations of individual symbols within a communication system.  In language these symbols are morphemes (smallest unit of speech), words and sentences; in culture we could interpret it as the basic meaning-based functions of individual cultural symbols.  For our purposes the most important term to the study of semiotics is pragmatics.  Within the study of linguistics pragmatics is involved with the “force of speech events on the world”, or the social context in which the language is spoken.

Geertz states that the use of a semiotics in the conception of public meaning requires a thick not a thin conception of culture.  Semiotics enables a person to move from a thin to thick conceptions.  The idea of thick and thin conceptions is illustrated in how the human behavior of winking is interpreted.  A ‘thin’ interpretation (merely semantic or syntactic) defines winking as “a contraction of the eyelid.”  This definition is clearly deficient if one is interested in understanding why the person is winking.  Surprisingly some business communication seems to assume that a thin interpretation of a partner’s behavior is sufficient grounds for getting a message across.  The pitfalls are obvious in the illustration.

Conversely a cultural interpretation or comparison of the meaning behind the behavior i.e., Geertz’s ‘thick’ (pragmatic/semiotic) definition of winking, explores the cultural context of the act of winking. Was it an involuntary movement of the eyelid, or did it have a meaning-based, communicative function?

The benefit of a semiotic approach is that it values the context in which communication occurs and thus helps to avoid drawing broad generalizations that effectively mislead one into believing they have captured the full impact of cultural differences when in fact they possess only a thin perspective. Geertz contends “…not that there are no generalizations that can be made about man as man, save that he is a most various animal, or that the study of culture has nothing to contribute toward the uncovering of such generalizations.  My point is that such generalizations are not to be discovered through a Baconian search for cultural universals.”[6]

Putting Interpretive Models to Use

My point in the discussion above is to show; (1) that cross-cultural understanding is possible; (2) that one understands in degree or layers not in whole so that (3) continuous learning is necessary to succeed well in communication across cultures. As noted previously one must engage in language learning to be effective in the global market. (See,

Effective global business leaders develop cultural understanding by listening and inquiry. This means that before a person is truly effective in cross-cultural interaction they own the realization that their own behaviors are informed by a culturally based set of values that are not de facto universal and may in fact be getting in the way of understanding. Regardless of the model used (stratigraphic or semiotic) learning a new culture requires that one listen and observe to find the relationships between words, actions and the values the inform both. There are four available strategies which are important to understand in assessing cultural forms.  See Table 2.

The point is that learning a new culture when one has limited language skills requires observable phenomenon (behavior) from which to infer constructs.  By the word “constructs” I mean the collective programming of the mind that results from certain conditions of existence that produce a system of permanent and transferable tendencies that function as the basis for practices and images that can be collectively orchestrated without a conductor. (See Hofstede’s work.)

Learning a new culture often consists of observing behavior and asking for an interpretation for why that behavior occurs.  A pitfall exists in this strategy that researchers call the Heisenberg effect. The Heisenberg effect states that observed behavior provoked by research cannot always be extrapolated to circumstances in which the researcher is not present.   This presents a problem of validity in that inferred values or mental models may seem valid in the first answers provided by a cultural mentor but have little real influence in real behavior. In other words I may think I understand a behavior as something that applies in all social settings within the culture I study only to find that the information I received from my cultural mentor was limited to a specific context or situation or in fact represents an ideal that no one actually lives out.

Table 2: Four Available Strategies for defining Cultural Constructs[7]

Provoked Natural
Words 1.InterviewsQuestionnaires

Projective tests

2.Content analysis of speechesDiscussions


Deeds 3.Laboratory experimentsField experiments 4.Direct observationUse of available descriptive statistics

When seeking to understand a new culture a person can use provoked or natural strategies.   Provoked strategies are those observations that engage another person to provoke a response that helps the observer understand.  For example the strategies in quadrant 1 above are the easiest to conduct.  The data gathered from instruments like those mentioned in quadrant 1 seem valid without further proof i.e., they have face validity.  Face validity is a property of a test intended to measure something. It is the validity of a test at face value. In other words, a test has face validity if it “looks like” it is going to measure what it is supposed to measure. So, while the methods of quadrant 1 are useful they run the risk of the Heisenberg effect.  Off set the potential of misunderstanding by using the methods of quadrant 1 in conjunction natural strategies defined in the measurements of quadrants 2 and 4 in Table 2.

It is important to understand a dynamic identified by Argyris and Schön as the difference between espoused theories and theories in use.  Espoused theories are those ideal values a culture holds as a reference point for what is good or acceptable.  Theories in use refer to how decisions are actually made. Hofstede called this the distinction between desired and desirable behaviors.  The distinction is important in distinguishing between actions (the desirable that indicates values in action on the basis of the individual and the situation) and words (which provides the ideal [desired] that is held as a standard for determining action. In other words; what is the frame for the norm is it statistical (desired) or deontological (desirable)?

Desired: the statistically validated values that characterize the mental programming of a group. Discover desired values by assessing the words and actions of a collection of individuals.

Desirable: the ontologically stated values of a group that inform the assumptions behind ethical decision-making and choices of action.

Both words and actions are important to gain competence within a culture especially in serving as a change agent and a team builder (i.e., actions/competencies that are critical in leading across cultures).

Hofstede used quadrants 1 and 4 to identify and describe the mental software used by groups of people in the constructs of: (1) values and (2) culture.  This allowed him to name discrete group mental programs while also recognizing the variations inherent due to ecological differences and personal adaptation. Hence it is important to understand Hofstede’s definition of terms.

Values: a conception, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of the desirable which influences the choice from available modes, means and ends of actions.[8]

Culture: the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.[9] Culture consists in patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments or in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values.[10]

So what should you be attentive to in trying to understand cultural values?  Hofstede suggests using the following contrasts to define how a culture thinks and behaves. Using these continua help compare and contrast observed versus stated values.  Ask yourself how do people talk about these concepts?  Do they act in ways consistent to what they said?  Under what circumstances do their actions seem to differ from what they said?  Are these apparent differences common to everyone or observable in only one or a few?

  • Evil versus good
  • Dirty versus clean
  • Dangerous versus safe
  • Decent versus indecent
  • Ugly versus beautiful
  • Unnatural versus natural
  • Abnormal versus normal
  • Paradoxical versus logical
  • Irrational versus rational
  • Moral versus immoral

It is not only important to understand how these concepts are defined but to capture the reasoning behind the definitions (remember the focus is behavior). Table 3 identifies the distinction then between desired and desirable.  When listening to people talk listen for three semantic differentials – these give hints to whether you are hearing desired or desirable values.  Osgood et al 1975 identified three semantic dimensions

  • Evaluation – good or bad
  • Potency – strong or weak
  • Activity – active or passive

Learning to listen for values by the way is a skill that enhances leadership in one’s own cultural context as well. When we talk about the complexities of culture we will move this discussion a step further.  For now think about language that illustrates these semantic dimensions.  Think about it in conversations you have had in your own organization and it would be helpful to think about difficult conversations.

Table 3: Distinction between the Desired and the Desirable and Associated Distinctions[11]

Nature of a Value The Desired The Desirable
Dimension of a value Intensity Direction
Nature of corresponding norm of value Statistical, phenomenological, pragmatic Absolute, deontological, ideological
Corresponding behavior Choice and differential effort allocation Approval or disapproval
Dominant outcome Deeds and/or words Words
Terms used in measuring instrument Important, successful, attractive, preferred Good, right, agree, ought, should
Affective meaning of this term Activity plus evaluation Evaluation only
Person referred to in measuring instrument Me, you People in general


The growing ability to understand and to make oneself understood in cross-cultural settings is a process.  As long as a person grasps the concept of culture and commits to learning how to get things done they will grow in their cross-cultural communication ability or cultural intelligence. If a person assumes that the way they are accustomed to working is universally effective frustration and ineffectiveness occurs. Using the listen models suggested in this paper is a good step toward learning to get things done in cross-cultural settings.  What similar ways of understanding do you use in a global market place to get things done?  What has worked for you?  What did not work?  Who did you turn to for help?  What kind of help did they give?  Write me or leave a comment and let me know what you learned.

[1] This definition is very close to what Geertz will recommend and then caution against based on his observation of the unpredictability of human behavior.

[2] Charles H. Kraft. Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 118.

[3] Kraft, 120.

[4] Clifford Geertz. Available Light (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[5] V. Turner.  From Ritual to Theatre, (New York: Performing Arts Publications, 1982), 8.

[6] Geertz, 40.

[7] Hofstede, 5.

[8] Hofstede 5

[9] Hofstede 9

[10] Hofstede 9 quoting Kluckhohn 1951:86

[11] Hofstede, 7.